Monday, July 7, 2014

Review of "June Moon" - Williamstown Theatre Festival


June Moon is one of those clichĂ©d song titles that were prevalent during the heyday of Tin Pan Alley, roughly the end of the 19th century through the early part of the 20th Century.  The title is easy to remember, can be effortlessly reprised within the body of the work, and the rhyming schemes are simple and schmaltzy.  Songwriters and music publishers aggressively pushed this type of unimaginative and hackneyed composition on a susceptible public.  They were greatly helped by “song pluggers,” individuals hired to sing the latest offerings in public venues as one method to market the newest tunes.  This business model, as well as the music industry of the time, is gently skewered in the 1929 revival of the George S. Kaufman and Ring Lardner comedy, June Moon, which opened the 2014 season of the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Lauded in its time, June Moon, comes across today as a less biting depiction of a bygone era and more 1930’s melodrama of small town yokel being corrupted by a blonde bombshell and big city life.  The show opens as the unsophisticated Fred Stevens (Nate Corddry) trains to New York City, after leaving his job at General Electric in Schnectady, to become a songwriting lyricist in The Big Apple.  Onboard he meets fresh-faced Edna Baker (Rachel Napoleon) and the two, tentatively at first, hit it off.  Fred discusses his plans, impressing his new, wide-eyed lady friend.  They banter.  They laugh. They innocently come up with the title of a song, “June Moon.”  Upon arriving in the city the would-be wordsmith arrives at the apartment of semi-successful composer, Paul Sears (Rick Holmes), his dispirited wife, Lucille (Kate MacCluggage), and her unscrupulous sister, Eileen (Holley Fain).  Also, in attendance is nightclub entertainer and colleague Maxie (David Turner).  Sears is desperate for a hit song and, through a letter of introduction, sees Fred Stevens, the greenhorn, as his possible salvation.  The three men discuss possibilities and settle on developing “June Moon.”  About to leave for a date with lady friend Edna, Stevens is introduced to captivating and alluring, Eileen, and is unabashedly smitten.   From there June Moon settles into a tale of coming up with the big hit.  Predictably, “June Moon” does become a success, lining the pockets of Sears and Stevens with an infusion of cash.  Unfortunately, the hard sell and pushiness of the music business is overshadowed by the relational problems of Sears and his despondent wife and Fred and his now fiancĂ©, the gold-digging Eileen (Semi spoiler alert--the kind-hearted Edna does return at the play’s conclusion for the requisite happy ending).   

We get a glimpse of the chaotic music world at the beginning of Act II as the set unfolds to a raucous suite of singers plugging away songs in closet-sized offices.  The marvelous Christopher Fitzgerald as the hapless songwriter, Benny Fox, provides steady comic relief as he desperately tries to impress anyone within breathing distance with one of his abysmal compositions.  The one character that fully embraces the intent of Kaufman and Lardner is Maxie (David Turner).  The actor is superb as he delivers his sarcastic observations and smart-alecky remarks, giving the play its lone heft.  The rest of the acting company is splendid.  Their performances just don’t elevate the show to a level of real stinging satire of the music industry.

Tobin Ost’s scenic design is evocative of the time period, especially the music publisher offices.  The set changeover between Act I and II was unnecessarily long, which hopefully will be rectified for the remainder of the run.

Director Jessica Stone admirably guides the cast, yet there is not too much movement or flair onstage.  The performers do a lot of sitting and talking, moving around from one location to another, and then continuing their talking and sitting.  Again, once the action locates to the music publishing offices Stone is able to bring out the essence of the play with the hustle, bustle, frantic nature of the industry where sell, sell sell is the nature of the business.

June Moon, more toothless then biting send-up of Tin Pan Alley at the Williamstown Theatre Festival through July 13th.